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Fifth Avenue Synagogue.jpegIf you’re so rich, why aren’t you smart?
In one of the dopier letters to the editor I’ve seen in the New York Times, American Jewish Congress executive director David Harris takes the Gray Lady to task for emphasizing Bernard Madoff’s Jewishness:

Yes, he is Jewish. We get it. But was this relevant to his being arrested for cheating investors, or so key to his evolution as a businessman that it needed to be hammered home again and again?

Harris goes on to contrast this with the Times‘ account of the season’s other great figure of scandal:

I have read several accounts in The Times of the shenanigans of Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, yet have no clue what his religion is, nor, frankly, do I care. Why should I? Unless he was acting in the name of his faith, which I assume he was not, what difference does it make?

Sure, let’s stipulate that Blago (as opposed to, say, Slobodan Milosevic) was not acting in the name of Serbian Orthodoxy. Bernie Madoff’s story is very, very substantially about the Jewish community, a remarkable number of whose leading philanthropists and non-profit institutions he allegedly sheared of their wealth.
If Harris doesn’t think Jewishness lies at the center of the Madoff affair he might take a look at the latest issues of the Forward (“Madoff Scandal Rips Apart Close World of Jewish Philanthropy“) and the Jewish Week (“Amid Madoff Wreckage, Call for Reform“) Of course, Harris knows full well how big a Jewish story this is. But because Madoff is such a shonda for the goyim (disgrace in front of the gentile world), he presumably wanted to convey the idea that it would be better if the (yes, Jewish-owned) American newspaper of record just not harp on that aspect of the story. Sha, sha.
Such a viewpoint is part and parcel of the story itself. Among the many things it reveals is that older Jewish philanthropists, accepted as they now are in the wide gentile world, have continued to behave like they live in the closed, who-do-you-know, handshake-deal immigrant world from which they sprung. As Brandeis historian Jonathan Sarna tells Michael Paulson in today’s Boston Globe:

One thing that’s not sufficiently understood is that the people who are involved in this are disproportionately older, and enormously loyal to the Jewish community If that generation has now been wiped out of money, we’re going to see a real change, because the people who made their money in high-tech weren’t affected at all, and the younger Jews don’t even understand how you could have given that much money to one guy.

One of the critical developments in the Jewish communal world of the past couple of decades has been the increased power of wealthy leaders, over against organizations like the Congress and the American Jewish Committee and the ADL, which have been hollowed out and deprived of influence. This throwback to the days of the Strauses and Lehmans has made for some unlovely backroom family politics and a definite shortage of collective, bottom-up decision making. If there’s a silver lining to this very dark cloud, it may be that the demise of Madoff and Friends will return rule by Our Crowd to a Jewish community less cozy, less opaque, and less subject to whim and bluster.